Kobo crashes the Kindle vs Nook party with $129 touch eReader (Kobo Wireless just $99)

Wow! Kobo just totally stole the spotlight from Amazon and B&N. It’s hard to imagine any way B&N (or for that matter, Amazon) can get the attention back.

  1. Firstly, there’s a new $129 Kobo eReader with a touchscreen and WiFi. That’s a touch screen eReader at a lower price point than the Kindle WiFi.
  2. Secondly, Kobo Wireless is down to $99. It’s a bit primitive but the Kobo Store is really good.

Those are two astounding bits of news – they weren’t supposed to be announced today, and they certainly weren’t supposed to be announced by Kobo. Engadget had the scoop on the incredible $129 touch screen Kobo eReader.

Last year, Kobo pushed the envelope on pricing and introduced the first $150 eReader. This year, it’s hit the $99 mark.

Kobo vs Kindle

The Kindle is in a tough spot here (Engadget has a Kindle vs Kobo video which amply demonstrates this) –

  1. The $139 Kindle WiFi is obviously a much better device than the $99 Kobo WiFi. However, $99 is $99. It also makes Kindle with Special Offers seem a lot less special.
  2. The $139 Kindle WiFi will also get compared to the $129 touchscreen Kobo WiFi. Touch does make a difference and $10 cheaper isn’t bad either. Perhaps the most compelling factor for readers looking for total cost of ownership will be Kobo’s propensity to hand out eBook coupons and discounts.
  3. The $189 Kindle 3 is in deep trouble. An eReader that is $60 cheaper with the same eInk Pearl screen and the added bonus of touch? Amazon has to cut the Kindle 3’s price to $150 or it will start seeing a non-trivial drop in sales.

I’m still a little in shock that Kobo managed to pull this off. Who knows – perhaps it goes bankrupt running this race to $99. On paper, Kobo certainly doesn’t seem capable of taking on Amazon and B&N – but somehow it is putting up a real fight.

Concerns over Borders don’t really apply. Firstly, Kobo is part owned by lots of international conglomerates and such – It will not go down with Borders. Secondly, Kobo has its own ebook store which is very solid. Thirdly, it uses ePub so you can just read books from other stores that sell ePub – lots of stores will be happy to get your business.

Kobo vs Nook 2 – Will B&N be able to compete?

B&N’s Nook 2 might have a touch screen of its own and that would negate one of the Kobo’s big pluses. B&N also gets advance notice – even if it is less than 24 hours until the grand unveiling of the Nook 2.

The big disappointment for Godfather Riggio and the B&Nians will be that they aren’t the ones putting the fear of God into the hearts of all other eReader makers. B&N is now effectively a bridesmaid at Kobo’s wedding – a bridesmaid who just realized that her own wedding in two weeks is probably not going to be as impressive.

Apart from the element of surprise, there are two very real concerns –

  1. The $129 Kobo will be a dangerous competitor. If Kindle doesn’t get ’em, Kobo might.
  2. The $99 Kobo is even more trouble.

You have the rock – Amazon offering up free Internet and free 3G and a very impressive ebook store. You now also have a hard place – Kobo crossing the $99 threshold and also making its high-end model an absolute steal at $129 (Can we call a $129 eReader high-end?).

If B&N doesn’t announce something very impressive tomorrow, its position as the #2 eReader and #2 eBook Store will be under severe threat.

The Kobo Threat

  1. Same eInk Pearl screen as Kindle 3 – This negates one of Kindle’s big advantages, i.e. the only reasonably priced eReader with eInk Pearl.
  2. Faster processor makes things like PDF scrolling super fast and makes page turning faster. A definite advantage – the PDF scrolling was scary good.
  3. Touch makes it easier to use for people who aren’t comfortable pressing buttons. Infra-red system so readability is not affected at all.
  4. Smaller.
  5. Low $129 Price.
  6. It’s very simple to use – one Kobo owner said it’s dead simple and that’s an accurate description. It, thankfully, doesn’t do all the social network nonsense.
  7. It has expandable memory – a microSD card slot that can take up to 32GB.
  8. [Separate Model] Older model is now just $99. It’s not impressive at all – but for people stuck in *Reading is only worth $100* Land it seems magical and revolutionary.

Please Note: This post doesn’t cover Kindle’s advantages (free 3G, better ebook store, better ebook prices, WhisperNet features, etc.). That’s because this post is mostly meant to talk about how Kobo is turning Kindle vs Nook 2 into Kindle vs Nook vs Kobo.

And that’s the key thing – 2011 was set to be The Year of Kindle vs Nook, until Kobo decided to take matters into its own hands.

Is Kobo becoming the #1 Kindle competitor?

The Kindle, on the surface, seems to have only two serious eReader competitors – Nook, with its library book support and eInk screen, and Sony Reader, with its eInk Pearl screen and touch capability. All three devices target dedicated readers.

There’s also the Nook Color – However, that’s more of a Reading Tablet and targets casual readers.

On the ebook front, we again have two ebook stores which are big Kindle competitors – Google, with Google eBooks, and B&N, with its store and its reading apps.

In the midst of all of this, there’s a surprisingly strong emerging Kindle competitor – Kobo. 

Kobo is, without a doubt, the company making the most dangerous moves in the eBook space. It’s eReader is rather unimpressive – However, the eBook moves it is making and the distribution channels it is building up are both extremely impressive.

Kobo’s moves are worth paying attention to

If you look at everything Kobo is doing, there’s a lot to admire – In fact, there are multiple areas where it’s beating other eReader and eBook companies.

  1. eBook Deals. It’s bringing the concept of deals and coupons to ebooks. While Kindle Store and Nook store have only two extremes, full price books and free books, Kobo constantly offers 10% off and 35% off coupons and deals. It’s strange that Amazon offers deals in every other department but pretends Kindle owners don’t care about deals. The latest strange move is closing the popular Kindle Deal of the Day section.
  2. Distribution Channels. Kobo is building up relationships with a lot of partners for its reading apps. It has a deal with RIM to be pre-loaded on the PlayBook Tablet, and one with Samsung to be pre-loaded on the Galaxy Tab. The Kobo for iPhone reading app is in the Top 4 free reading apps (iBooks, Kindle, Nook are above it). TeleRead has details of a press release in which Kobo’s CEO is claiming Kobo will come preloaded on 20 million devices in 2011.
  3. International Availability. Your experience might differ from mine – Kobo offers a really good range of books for Canadian eReader owners. From anecdotal evidence it seems to offer a pretty good range of books for other non-US countries too. Given that Kindle Store books can’t be read on other eReaders, and Kobo store books can be, the #1 ebook store choice for non-Kindle ereader owners outside the US becomes Kobo.
  4. Prices Lower than Agency Model. By using 35% off coupons, and taking advantage of periodic deals, you can get books for prices much below Agency Model prices. Not sure how Kobo manages to do it – but it does.

Those are four areas where no other eReader company is moving as quickly. Amazon has a big advantage in international, but things like not selling Kindles outside US and UK in the last two months of 2010, not offering enough free book offers outside the US and UK, and tacking on $1 or $2 book download charges is preventing it from capitalizing fully on its lead.

Kobo is improving in other areas too

Kobo is also making other good moves –

  1. Kobo today added 175,000 education, technical, and reference PDFs to the Kobo Store. These include medical texts, business manuals, technical manuals, academic texts, and other education and self-education related PDFs. They claim the prices are much lower than textbook prices.
  2. While the Kobo eReader is not very good you have to give Kobo credit for two things – releasing the first $150 eReader back in early 2010, realizing wireless support is crucial and introducing a new wireless eReader. It seems it’s learning from its mistakes, and is willing to fight on price.
  3. Kobo eReader owners mention a lot of positives – simplicity of use, support for library books, no distractions, quilted back, light weight, memory slot, ePub support. It seems like Kobo did get some things right. A few users mention that the lower number of buttons makes things simpler – that’s an interesting thing to wonder about.
  4. Kobo bundles a pack of 100 classics with its eReader. That’s definitely a good move – most people don’t realize these are available free online. Also, it’s nice to have something you can start reading as soon as you get your eReader.
  5. Kobo has done very well with its reading apps. Contrast its progress (supposedly 20 million devices with Kobo reading apps preloaded in 2011) with Sony which hasn’t even released apps for the major platforms. Even the Notion Ink CEO, Rohan Shravan, mentioned Kobo would be one of the apps available on Adam soon. Note: Kindle for Android is already available on Adam.

There are improvements and good moves across the board.

People are beginning to notice that Kobo is good and improving

There are quite a few people waking up to Kobo’s progress –

  1. At Teleread one of the writers recently called Kobo the best reading app. 
  2. Most articles about eReaders or eBooks now mention Kobo along with Kindle and Nook.
  3. A few articles about the best reading apps for iPhone and iPad mention the Kobo reading app.
  4. If you head over to MobileRead, there’s a decent amount of activity going on at the Kobo forum – only Kindle, Nook, Sony, and iPhone forums are seeing more activity. There’s also a 35% off coupon: NEWYOU11, which you can use on the next 10 Kobo books you buy.
  5. Freescale Semiconductor has included the Kobo reading app in its blueprint for Android Tablets. Which means a lot of Tablet manufacturers will be introduced to Kobo as the ‘recommended by Freescale’ reading app.

After factoring in everything, it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that Kobo is rapidly becoming a huge threat.

Kobo’s 4 strengths – 4 reasons Kobo is becoming the #1 Kindle competitor

Quite simply –

  1. It’s fighting on Price. It’s introducing cheap eReaders, and its ebook prices are amongst the lowest. Combine that with its propensity to offer Agency Model busting coupons, and suddenly we have a company willing to compete with Amazon on price. Perhaps the only company other than B&N that’s willing to compete with Amazon on price.
  2. It’s getting distribution right. It’s the anti-Sony in that it’s providing a great ebook solution, and it’s providing it over every platform and to every eReader owner (except Kindle, where it’s locked out).
  3. It’s fighting in lots of countries. Unlike Nook which is US-only, Kobo is international.
  4. It’s improving its eReader based on market trends. Kobo is admittedly behind in the eReader wars – However, it’s added wireless and has made improvements. It might be able to release a decent eReader in 2011 – one capable of competing with Kindle 3 and Nook 2.

If you look at the evidence, there’s a very strong chance that by the end of 2011 the Big 3 eReaders will be Kindle, Nook, and Kobo. Additionally, B&N hasn’t taken Nook international. If it doesn’t release Nook internationally in 2011, it might cede the #2 spot to Kobo by early 2012.

Sony, because of its lack of infrastructure and its terrible ebook store and its lack of reading apps, and Google, because of its lack of an eReader, might fall behind Kobo. It makes you wonder why Google and Sony don’t team up.

We arrive at a surprising conclusion – Kobo might have the best strategy after Amazon. It might even have as good a strategy as Amazon. Kobo is rapidly becoming the #1 Kindle competitor.

Stumbling onto Kobo, reviewing its threat to Kindle Store

The Kindle and the Kindle Store co-exist only for each other. They are like two childhood friends who shun the company of others. No other eReader, and no other eBook Store, is let in – although a few tablets and phones are allowed to partake of the exquisite joy found in conversing with the Kindle Store.

In the world of eReaders, outside of the little Kindle clique, lie a variety of stores and eReaders that mingle freely. Amongst that milieu one store has begun to attract quite a lot of attention.

Stumbling on to the Kobo Store

Yesterday, the Kobo Store had a one-time use 50% off coupon – a coupon you could use on one out of a few hundred books. Today, it has a 20% off coupon valid on 40 or so books.

On top of these offers is this enticing claim –

Between 13th and 26th December, spend over $35 and get a 45% off coupon. Spend over $25, and you get a 35% off coupon.

Let’s get this straight – First, there’s 50% off, then there’s a coupon for another 35% off?

That does sound very compelling.

There are also a few other things working in Kobo Store’s favor.

Wonder of wonders – The store isn’t restricted to the US. Nor does it make things difficult – In fact, the store is reasonably easy to search through. Plus, unlike the Nook Store, its books work on any eReader. Finally, it uses the mildly awkward Adobe Digital Editions to authenticate books for devices, and not custom-made, super-awkward software like Sony Reader does.

It’s also a civilized store – not asking eReader owners to do anything untoward like enter special passwords.

3 Magic Words

Bought a book. Now reading it on the Nook Color.

There was one magic moment. The book bought from the Kobo Store had this in the ‘Book Info’ section –

Permissions set by the publisher

Allow viewing: on any device.

It’s such a strange contrast. My Kindle books are permanently welded to the Kindle, and to Kindle Reading Apps. My Nook Books are similarly intertwined with B&N’s offerings. Yet, here is a Kobo book that doesn’t discriminate.

3 magical words – on any device.

All it takes is one purchase

After that one purchase everything changes –

  1. Kobo has my credit card information now.
  2. Reading a Kobo Store book makes me a Kobo customer.
  3. The realization hits home – There is an option other than hacking Nook Color to run Kindle for Android. 
  4. The 3 magic words are now stuck in my subconscious.
  5. It becomes apparent that the Kobo Store is pretty decent. Prices for some books are higher than Kindle Store, and the range is less – But it’s decent.

That 50% sale paid off with this eReader owner – Kobo becomes the default store powering my Nook Color.

The Nook Store won’t even let me buy books. My US credit card has a Canadian address, and that’s not good enough for B&N. Understandable – given all the profit they’ve been making recently.

Kindle Store won’t let me read books on Nook. Hacking an eReader just to run Kindle for Android is a bit extreme – especially when Nook Color works really well as is.

Kobo Store is a valid threat to Kindle Store

Kobo eReader lacks punch. It also lacks personality, features, infrastructure, and any hint of excitement. It’s the type of device Steve Jobs has nightmares about. He probably screams – Not a Big Blue Button. For the love of God. Off with his head! – in his sleep.

Yet, Kobo eReader has the support of a Kobo Store that is quite impressive.

Here are a few of the Kobo Store’s advantages –

  1. The books work on any eReader that supports ePub.
  2. You can take your library with you if you switch devices.
  3. It works internationally. Not sure which countries other than US and Canada.
  4. It’s very aggressive with discounts and coupons.
  5. It’s managed to incorporate a lot of free books from Smashwords.
  6. It’s a decent store – easy to navigate, clear and clean-cut, beginning to get user reviews.
  7. There are good Kobo reading apps for other platforms.

Perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t make any big, huge mistakes. There are some horrendously priced books – However, that has more to do with the kind and benevolent Agency Model.

Amazon has no option but to sell ePub editions to eReader owners whose eReaders support ePub

Here’s a suggestion from K H Acton –

What if Amazon SOLD ePub books along with its proprietary format, but limited the Kindle to the proprietary format. Then it could keep Kindle customers using the best ebook store around AND open the best bookstore to the ePub readers.

It’s an absolutely brilliant suggestion.

Look at the threat Kobo Store poses, and the suggestion is not only brilliant, but also timely. It would be a proactive move that would prevent Kobo Store from eating up the entire non-Kindle market.

  1. With Sony’s terrible Reader Store, and B&N’s ‘ePub that works only on Nook’ fiasco, the Kobo is the clear #1 choice.
  2. If Amazon lets that status quo remain, soon Kobo will be making a ton of money from eBook sales.
  3. That would put Kobo in position to mount an all-out attack on Kindle’s lead – in both eReaders and eBooks.
  4. If Amazon sells books in ePub format, to eReader owners whose eReaders support ePub, it becomes the best eBook Store for them instantly. That prevents Kobo from being their #1 option.
  5. It would curtail the Kobo threat – Before it became a huge one.

Amazon can ill-afford to let a single rival store become the eBook source for all non-Kindle devices. Kobo is threatening to do that with its excellent, ‘works on any device’, ebook store.

Will Amazon make a proactive move to fend off Kobo?

Kobo Store is likely to grow into a big and dangerous threat to the Kindle Store. You could argue that Kobo isn’t yet a real threat – that Amazon should wait 2 years to see if Kobo or another ePub store manages to unite the ePub hordes.

However, there’s no point in launching ePub support for non-Kindle eReader owners after another store has established itself. The real value would be in making the move now.

Amazon has shown a tendency to let its rival eReaders and rival stores make moves first – PDF support, books in the browser, touch. It waits for the move, measures/estimates the impact, and then counters. With Kobo, it’s a different situation – Kobo is wrapping up customers and becoming stronger. Amazon needs to be proactive – It needs to stop the rise of Kobo before Kobo gets to the stage where it turns into a monster.

What might Kobo do to become a bigger threat to Amazon?

Kobo can actually do a lot –

  1. Match Kindle Store on ebook prices across the board.
  2. Release an eReader that looks like it’s at least trying.
  3. Target Nook and Sony Reader owners more aggressively.
  4. Keep expanding its international reach.
  5. Find a way to sell to Kindle owners.
  6. Release a Kobo Tablet.
  7. Target Nook Color owners very aggressively.

Perhaps the biggest opportunity for Kobo is in targeting all the new Nook, Nook Color, and Sony Reader owners. Kobo’s already good enough to become the eBook store of choice for non-Kindle eReaders – It just has to get the word out.

The threats to Kindle and Kindle Store keep multiplying

Kobo is the latest addition to a long list of significant threats to the Kindle.

Nook Color is currently the single biggest threat to the Kindle – ever. Nothing else is even close – Nook Color makes the iPad seem like an overweight sumo wrestler trying kickboxing.

Kobo Store seems a distant threat – However, it’s almost as dangerous as Nook Color. Kobo Store can sell books to every single non-Kindle eReader. It might end up being the one eBook store that rules the entire ePub world.

The other threats we keep hearing about. Yet, they aren’t the ones Amazon should worry about first. Nook Color and Kobo eBook Store will end up being the biggest challenges for the Kindle.